I chose to take my own life more than twenty-one years ago. I've given many different reasons for this decision over the years. The basic truth of my suicide is that I could not find a reason to keep living. Everything I tried to do ended in disappointment or failure. I'd dropped out of college because I couldn't figure out why I was there aside from being able to say "I went to college." Jobs came and went and nothing ever felt like it was what I wanted to do, and my lack of interest showed. Relationships came and went, mostly because I never felt like I was with the right woman, not because, as I so often claim, women weren't interested in me. I decided to commit myself to a certain path two years before my suicide. I decided to settle. I decided I was going to marry my then girlfriend, become a full time postal carrier, and accept that this was all there was to a fire.
That fell apart. After agreeing to marry me, my fiancee had a change of heart. She said she wasn't ready for marriage, that she was too young, that she hadn't really lived yet, and that she wasn't completely certain we were meant to be together. I knew we weren't meant to be together. I cared about her, but I felt no real love or passion for her. She was who I was settling for in my effort to find some measure of happiness in what people told me was the purpose of life: get married, have a family, find a reliable job that pays the bills, and live happily ever after.
When it fell apart it was the culmination of my belief that I was a complete failure at this thing called life. When everything else started to go wrong, when I was betrayed by friends, manipulated and used by people who saw me as an easy mark, it became unbearable. On the night of June 6, 1994, I decided I'd had enough, and after I'd ingested enough pills and booze to kill a water buffalo, the question I kept asking was, "Why should I keep living? What is the point of my being here?" while shouting to the heavens, "There is no fucking point."
When I got to the "other side" I was asked if I wanted to return. At first I was confused by the question. Why would I want to return? I'd made it clear that I saw no point in continuing a mediocre existence where everything went wrong and there was no point to anything.
And yet, I decided to turn around and go back.
After my return to this life, I was haunted by recurring dreams. These dreams were so vivid, so alive, that I often woke up questioning which was the reality, the dream or the waking world? In these dreams a woman would always appear, calling to me, usually from within a cabin in the woods where we were alone until a man burst through the front door and fired a shotgun into my face. I'd often wake up in a cold sweat from these dreams. I think being shot in the face probably justifies that.
This dream woman would always say the same thing. "Find me and I will give you the answer," she'd tell me. And when I asked her how, she would always say, "Go where there is no snow. You will have no doubt and the sky will turn to gold." Those last two lines we also repeated by other figures who appeared in my dreams, from an angel in white to an old man dealing cards at a table. The dreams came almost every night, vivid and clear, and refusing to leave me alone. I tried to drown them out by living a life of excess. I had gone from a hapless wallflower with severe depression who had given up on trying any longer to a man who drew people to him, who had multiple women not only desire him but fall in love with him, and I was living a life of meaningless, wanton joy.
One of these women who was drawn to me brought me to Orlando, where she lived. She was there when I met Tina for the first time, and I never told her that Tina was the woman from the dream. She had just told me she was in love with me and was torn between the way she felt about me and wanting to help me resolve the dreams. It would have been extremely uncomfortable and in bad form to, at that point say, "Hey, look, there she is! The woman from my dreams."
My focus after moving to Orlando six months later was to figure out why Tina was appearing in my dreams and to do whatever it took to make the dreams stop. There was no altruistic purpose. I was basically feeling like I was being constantly hit in the head with a hammer and wanted to find the person holding that hammer and say, "What do I need to do to get you to stop hitting me in the head with that fucking hammer?"
Two months ago I was interviewing for a job. Amongst other things, I was asked a very standard question. It was about why I chose to do the work I do. The usual answer is "Because I like to help people." It is a bullshit answer. It doesn't mean anything. It shows no insight, and for me, after working in the mental health field for the past ten years to show such a lack of insight would immediately register as a negative for my interview scoring.
"People go into this field with good intentions, but the wrong idea. They want to help people, but they are so certain that they have the answer to other people's suffering, whatever it might be, that they never see the actual person. They fail to realize that you need to first validate the other person before you can effectively communicate. They think that by validating the person they are validating the person's behavior. I know I can't walk into a room and solve all of the problems a person faces. All I can do is listen to them, try to understand their point of view and where they are coming from, and in the end all I can do is whatever I can do to encourage and support them in helping themselves. Maybe I can turn a light on for them so they can find their glasses on the desk, but it is up to them whether or not they put their glasses on. I choose to do this kind of work because I'm very good at it."
If you want to know what the biggest problem in the world is today, there you go. People are so certain that what they think and believe is right that they will assert their opinions as absolute truth, attacking and belittling everyone who disagrees with them, convinced that they can bully people into changing their minds. It doesn't matter whether what you think is right or wrong, what matters is that you destroy the lines of communication by invalidating other people by attacking them rather than respectfully challenging their beliefs and behaviors. You can't convert a heathen by calling him an asshole.
For three years I came to Chili's pretty much once a week. Tina kept me at arm's length, never letting me in, but she kept everyone else who worked there even further away. She had secrets, she had pain, and she was overwhelmed by self-doubt. I spent time outside of Chili's with almost everyone else who worked there, going to cookouts at their homes, playing pool, going to clubs, and even going to one of their funerals. Tina was perceived as arrogant, aloof, and several other less pleasant names. The perception was that she thought she was better than everyone else, but I knew a lot about her struggles because she shared them with me.
In 1998 I began to doubt the purpose of this "find me and I will give you the answer" business. I would come weekly and see Tina, sometimes talking to her at length, and sometimes barely speaking at all. I'd told her my story, in bits and pieces, about how I'd come to find her and why. She would insist that she either wasn't the person I was there for or that she wasn't worthy. Then she would always ask me not to go away.
I was frustrated and couldn't understand what the point was. I'd been writing a manuscript about my journey from suicide to Orlando and I decided to bring it to Chili's and ask Tina to read it. I hoped maybe there was something in it that she would connect with. It sat behind the bar for weeks until someone else picked it up and decided to read it. Every week Tina told me she hadn't had time to read it. I'd ask if she wanted me to take it, telling her she didn't have to read it, and she said, "No, I just haven't had time."
I felt like she was patronizing me, as if she felt sorry for me for having moved 1,500 miles because a dream told me to find her. When the manuscript disappeared and I asked if she'd taken it home, she said she didn't know what happened to it. After I found out who had taken it and read it, I told her she could keep it, that Tina obviously wasn't going to ever read it. And Tammy, who had taken the manuscript told me, "You know, if some dude came back from the dead and came all that way to find me, I would never want to lose him, and would have read that story as soon as you gave it to me."
Months later, when I was telling Tina a story that was told in greater detail in the manuscript, she told me she "knew." When I asked her how she knew, she said, "I did read your story, you know." When I asked her if Tammy brought it back to her she shook her head and very nonchalantly said, "I read it the first night you gave it to me."
People who have major issues with self-esteem usually have problems expressing themselves. They are overly self-critical and worry that everything they say will be ridiculed or rejected. They often become more withdrawn over time, suffer with depression, and assume defeat will be just around the corner.
One of the problems with mental illness and people's perceptions about it involves their need to find physical reasons to explain what they cannot see. A person suffering with serious depression is more easily understood if they have a weight problem or some other easily observed physical issue. It may also be easier to comprehend if there is a tangible explanation, such as low intelligence or a history of abuse. The more abstract a concept, the more difficult it is to understand, and people want something to point their finger at as "the source" or "the reason." They want to be able to say "this causes that, so stop doing this and that will stop." The campaign against vaccinations is the most glaring recent example of this.
Not being able to focus your perception on something as the cause for something you see as wrong is very difficult for human beings to do. When you can say that "C" is a result of "A" combined with "B," the world because a little less scary. Some people become obsessed with finding the answer to what causes "C." Others look for some way to explain it based on existing knowledge, so they no longer feel powerless when it comes to "C."
All this comes from our fear of the unknown and our feelings of powerlessness in the face of it.
Almost two decades ago I felt so powerless in the face of dreams that told me I needed to go where there was no snow and find a woman who would give me the answer that I was compelled to follow them. I had to resolve whatever it was, maybe some kind of requirement for me reclaiming my life and getting eerie powers like empathy and confidence in the process.
The dream was "C," and when I found Tina, she became "A." Now I needed to know what "B" was so I could come up with a clear and simple answer for why these dreams wouldn't leave me alone.
I came up with an answer that made sense, a definition for "B." I decided that helping Tina finish nursing school and become a nurse was my mission. Finishing was something she kept telling me she'd never be able to do. Either she either "wasn't smart enough" or just couldn't do it, that she was going to fail a class or not be able to do something in clinicals. She was so certain she would fail that in the early going she spoke of it as something that was going to happen, not as something that might happen. Tina became "A," nursing school became "B," and once Tina completed nursing school the dreams would stop and I could move on. It was like some weird Quantum Leap kind of thing in my mind. "Gee whiz, once I get Tina through nursing school I can leap!"
Human beings are fucking stupid. I'm right there in the mix, somewhere between you and that guy who lives down the street from you who does that thing with the other thing.
Human beings need to justify everything. They generally can't do one damned thing without asking "Why am I doing this?" or "What do I get out of it?" These motherfuckers can never seem to just do things for the sake of doing them. Have you ever told someone you love them and have the motherfucker respond by saying, "Why?" Did you ever have a worker from a road crew come up to your door and ask you to move you car? Did you ask him "Why?" You get these sons of bitches out in the woods camping and one of them gets bitten by a mosquito and the first thing he wonders is "Why was I the one who got bitten by the mosquito?" And then he tries to determine if maybe he has sweeter blood than the people he's with. You got bit by a fucking mosquito, asshole. Let it go.
Sure, yeah, it is the noble curiosity of the human race and this is how we've advanced so far while the rest of creation is still killing each other for food in the jungle. We have opposable thumbs so we have to question everything.
I'm not saying people need to stop asking questions. Critical thinking is the cornerstone of behavioral development, but come on, can't we just agree that some things don't have simple solutions we can scribble down and put on a fortune cookie?
I needed to get that off my chest.
In 1998 I wrote a two-hundred page manuscript because I believed that if Tina read it there would be one thing somewhere in all those pages that would cause a bell to sound in her brain telling her, "Eureka! This explains everything! Let me get back to Keith and put his mind to rest!"
I wanted a simple answer. At first I thought she was meant to be the greatest love of my life and we were going to ride off into the sunset together. Then I decided it had to be about getting her through nursing school. This was what led me, two years later, when I saw her at the nursing station at the hospital, on the floor my terminally ill friend was on, to step onto the elevator, smile at her, close the elevator door and walk out of her life. I had written an ending that answered my inane questions.
"What was the answer? To help her get through nursing school so she could be there for my sick friend two years later."
You realize, as much as I do, that is a load of crap. Sure, it really happened, but it is trite. It is the Lifetime channel ending. "Grab your tissues, look at this Marge, he helped her get through nursing school and now she is a nurse on the floor where his friend is dying. So beautiful (sniffle), so moving (snort)."
I sold that ending for over a decade. People bought it. I would have made a great spin doctor.
The last time Tina spoke to me, she told me I changed her life. This was the end game, this is what I'd come for. It was the moment of truth. She had completed nursing school, become an RN, and was going off to work in a hospital. She thanked me for everything I'd done trying to help her.
That would have made the ending, trite as it was, poetic. I had come from far away to help her get through nursing school and I had succeeded. That's a crazy story. Why ask why? No need to. It just is what it is. Seeing her at the hospital, working as a nurse, completed the mission. It is time to quantum leap to my next assignment! Give me the contract for six episodes, the pilot was a hit!
The problem with that was that Tina didn't stop at thanking me for helping her get through nursing school. She always kept her cards close to her chest. She had well guarded secrets, insecurities, and fears. Even when she opened up to me over the years in our conversations, there were some bridges she would not cross. She never once brought up a man, never once told me she was involved with anyone or that she'd ever dated anyone in her entire life. She talked about her childhood, her family, her struggles with work and school, but never once did she mention a man being in her life.
Which, I imagine, was to avoid me going away. She genuinely wanted me around. She said it was because I believed in her and always encouraged her when she felt like giving up, but in her final speech, she did the real life equivalent of breaking the fourth wall.
She rattled off a list of things she believed I'd done for her, from helping her overcome fears to believing in herself. Then she told me, basically, that because of everything that had happened since I "just appeared" in her life she had no choice but to convert to Christianity, start going to church, and to believe in God. This was, she said, because there was no other way to explain it all.
Whatever thoughts you have about religion, dismissive or otherwise, that is not the point. The point is that I spent three years basically giving counsel to this woman and believing I was having no real impact whatsoever, rationalizing it all down to a belief that I was helping her through nursing school and that would free me from my dreams. The point is that I didn't think being there was having any effect on her at all and that she was patronizing me because I seemed like a nice guy and I was easy to talk to.
Then, in the end, she tells me that I profoundly changed her life in ways that I didn't intend or even think possible.
And after that, I smiled, said I was glad, and walked away. Then, two years later, I saw her again, and I walked away.
Talk about an arrogant motherfucker.
Human beings like helping each other. Some do it in exchange for money or other compensation. Some do it for future consideration, believing that the person they helped now owes them, sort of like an economic karma system. "I'll fix your blown head gasket in exchange for a blowjob," is something that happens more often than anyone wants to admit. The old saying about how you can't get something for nothing rings true in these cases.
Many times you'll find people willing to help you, in one way or another, "out of the kindness of their heart." They may want nothing in return, or at least ask for nothing in return. They may say they want nothing in return, but what they get is a good feeling from having helped someone. They are getting high off the act of kindness and that is why they do it. Would they do the same thing if they felt bad afterwards?
I'm not knocking the idea of helping people. I believe in the ideals of give everything you can to everyone you know, but I know what I get out of it. I'm an addict. I love the rush, the feeling of euphoria, that comes with knowing I just helped someone overcome an obstacle or find their way out of the forest. I don't know what I'd do, or who I'd be, without it. I'm empathic, so I get a bigger high than most people, because I can feel the emotional balance within a person change when they go from a dark place to a place with some degree of illumination.
You would never be successful in the mental health field, in addiction recovery, or anywhere that exists as a conduit for change within people if you believe someone is going to change because you told them it would be a good idea, or that it is the right thing to do. There has to be something in it for them. No one changes their opinion because you tell them what they believe is stupid and then tell them what they are supposed to think. In that situation, people double down and build a wall around them and what they believe. Truth never trumps perception. You have to change the perception to create change.
I once knew this fool who was constantly frustrated by people failing to "see reason." Amongst other things that drove him to fits of anger was people who smoked cigarettes. Believing that health warnings and the serious risks therein should make everyone who smokes just stop, he would actually walk up to people and pull cigarettes out of their mouths and throw them on the ground while telling them, "I just saved your life." He campaigned to outlaw smoking in public places, pushed for "smoke free neighborhoods," and all kinds of crusader crap. He never once, to my knowledge, started a conversation with a smoker, while treating him as an equal, and asked him why he chose to smoke. He found the behavior wrong and offensive and wanted to eliminate it, but everyone thought he was an asshole.
Human being are fucking stupid. They have no idea how to communicate with each other and are constantly looking for an opportunity to feel morally superior to each other. This fool didn't want to know why people chose to smoke. He didn't want to accept that they were fully aware of the risks and that they'd decided the rewards they got from smoking outweighed the risks. As far as he was concerned, they were just ignorant or misinformed because, in his mind, no one would choose to smoke for any other reason.
People smoke because they enjoy it. People drink because they enjoy it. People go skydiving because they enjoy it. They are aware of the risks, in most cases, and have made an informed decision. If you want to be able to convince them otherwise, you are going to need to respect them, validate them as a fellow human being, and assume nothing.
You can't convert a heathen by calling him an asshole.
In the year 2000, Tina completed nursing school, became an RN and went to work at a hospital. She was terrified of death, she once told me, bothered by the idea of seeing someone die to the point where she thought she'd never make it as a nurse even if she did finish the program successfully. When I saw her at the hospital, she was working on the floor populated by terminally ill patients.
During my job interview two months ago, I was asked a lot of questions. My answers to those questions were key in my not only getting hired, but in getting hired at a position two grades higher than the one I applied for.
I told the administrator I interviewed with that I believed you could validate an individual without validating their behavior, and that I believed that was the key to everything you could possibly hope to accomplish in working with the type of population we would be working with. I told her you cannot help people by forcing your agenda, your beliefs, or your interpretation onto their struggle. I told her you can only hope to help people to help themselves, that we are a conduit, a wild card, and we needed to avoid making judgments if we hoped to build the kind of trust necessary to be successful in helping people to recover and find a better path for themselves.
We cannot, I told her, go into a therapeutic relationship with someone believing that we have any answers for them. That belief causes us to have tunnel vision. Does an alcoholic need to stop drinking? That is a rhetorical question. The real question is, do you know how to convince him to stop? No. Most of the jokes made about therapy involve a therapist sitting in a chair, a patient on a sofa next to her, and the patient is asking her what he should do, and she says, "What do you think you should do?" Everyone thinks that is funny, but it is actually what happens in therapy, although it is never that simplistic. The point is that people can only help themselves, but you can give them tools that will help them to do so.
I am one of those tools.
The dreams told me that if I found Tina, she would give me the answer. I thought the answer was about why I was supposed to find her and about how I needed to help her. My direct attempts fell short, she tended not to respond to my suggestions or advice as to how to handle various issues she was facing. It was when I listened to her, told her I understood, and gave her reasons why I believed she could succeed, that was when she listened.
The question was never about Tina. The question was the one I'd asked repeatedly the night I'd taken my own life. "Why should I keep living? What is the point of my being here?"
Apparently, someone thought I needed an answer to that question and sent me off to find the answer. They knew I would find it in Tina, and when I did I struggled for three years to understand what was going on. I kept coming back. I kept trying to understand. I kept trying to make sense of it.
Why the hell would I be asked to move 1,500 miles from home, start my life over in a new city, all for the purpose of listening to a blonde bartender tell me she wasn't worth the effort?
Find me and I will give you the answer.
I took my own life because I felt I had no purpose. I didn't think I was good enough at anything. I didn't feel like my life was worth the continued effort. Was it worth the continued effort? Tina didn't think she was worth the effort. Was she worth the effort? These are rhetorical questions.
The answer she gave me was the one I gave during my job interview. She'd taught me how to have an impact on people's lives, she taught me that you can't expect an easy answer, that you can't walk into a bar and tell someone, "You're the reason I'm here," and have them say, "Great! I have a message for you." Like I tell clients and patients I've had over the years, "If you don't put the work in, you'll never get there."
The answer is not a simple one. It doesn't fit on a fortune cookie. It doesn't make a cute ending to a best-selling novel. It is about understanding our strengths and our weaknesses. It is about knowing what we are capable of and accepting that sometimes it takes other people to help you realize what you are capable of. It is about people needing people. It is about not leaving this world without telling people how you feel about them and what they mean to you. It is about knowing we don't have all the answers. It is about knowing that sometimes you do things without ever being aware that you've done them. It is about being open to the infinite possibilities that dance in the air around us every day.
And it is about hope. It is about having faith in people and believing that we are better for knowing each other as equals. It is not about putting ourselves above another because we think what we know, believe, or have experienced makes us better.
I walked into Chili's in 1997 believing that I was Tina's savior and that she needed me to rescue her. When I felt I was done saving her I moved on and left her behind. We were always equals. We needed each other. Neither of us wanted to admit that. In the end, she found her way to explain it all, and I found mine. And I never got a chance to tell her...
Thank you for giving me the answer.